By Gregory Clark, By Special Cable to The Star Weekly from Algiers, January 29, 1944.
When 99 Canadian women standing in the corridors of a ship beside their stateroom doors listening to the whack and thud of the ship’s guns suddenly feel a great shock deep in the very belly of the ship, and know the worst had happened, you would expect at least one squeak. One scream out of 99? But the 90 and nine young Canadian women of a famous general hospital who were torpedoed in the Mediterranean by German aircraft are to go down in history as the hospital that never let a squeak, never lost its head and went over the side in lifeboats and up the tall sides of a rescue ship by rope nets and rope ladders without aid beyond the cheers of those on board hoisting them vocally to their safety.
Of the 99, four of whom were Canadian Red Cross nurses, the rest being nursing sisters of the general hospital, 63 were landed by the rescue ship, the balance, including the commander of the sisters, Major Blanche Herman Montreal, being taken aboard warships and landed elsewhere.
The 63 I saw land with nothing but the battledress they had on when sunk, and the next day in a lovely old building where they were being rested while a new kit was being secured for them, I talked to them at length. Lieut. Nursing Sister Cecil MacDonald was in charge of this group, nearly all of whom were from Montreal and its neighborhood, though a few Ontario girls were among them – Lieut. Frances Skead of Ottawa, Lieut. Margaret Mowat of Toronto, Lieut. Phyllis Weiker of Merrickville, Lieut. Evelyn MacTavish of Fort William, Lieut. Margaret Kennedy of Toronto, Lieut. E Cocker of Hamilton and Lieut. Frances Hanchet of Ottawa.
I have often wanted to interview just such a company of nurses as this, because most women who suffer shipwreck are women trained to the sea. Nobody who thinks of nurses in the war can help but wonder just how a woman faces up to these stark tragedies of war, which men are supposed to be specially equipped for by some special manly attribute. On the tile balcony of the old house where they were resting, overlooking a bay, nursing sisters, lieutenants all, and old comrades after many months of training in Britain, told the story of which this is a composite, but I will break it down later.
Always on Alert
You can’t go aboard a ship without doing a little quiet thinking about the possibilities,” said the battledress-clad girls. “Right the start there are boat drills, carried out in deadly earnest, and nobody goes anywhere in the ship without his life-preserver over his shoulder. Down the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean we had plenty of boat drills and three or four actual alarms when our convoy sighted enemy aircraft.
“We were only two or three days out of our destination and we had had our evening meal. The ship was crowded. When our dinner was over we went on deck as usual for a stroll, and dusk was just falling when suddenly the alarm klaxons sounded. By this time in a voyage you begin to feel you are a veteran and you do not hurry when the alarm goes. But to the squawk of the klaxon this night in dusk was added something we had not seen before – the red beads of anti-aircraft fire streaking obliquely skyward from the destroyers guarding our convoy.
When attacked our duty was to go to our stateroom corridors and there the 99 of us assembled in corridors on opposite sides of the ship.
“It was pretty quiet, not much talking, just nurses and others hurrying to their places below deck while the ship shook to the whack and thud of our own anti-aircraft guns firing. We had only been there a few minutes, maybe two or three, when suddenly the ship jarred and shook from a terrific blow, seemingly right in the belly. It seemed to be under us, though we know now it was a torpedo fired by an attacking German plane, which a moment later crashed into the sea itself.
“If anybody said anything at that moment, it was just ‘This is it!’ A few of us ducked into staterooms to grab something, but most of us obeyed the next signal on the klaxon, which was boat stations. There wasn’t even any excitement. We all had our battledress on, which we had been issued for the first time on leaving England, and we all rather fancied it and were wearing it in the evenings which were cool. Thank goodness we did.
“As we moved along the corridors toward the staircases of the ship, people lined the corridor walls calling quietly ahead, ‘Make way for the sisters; make way for the sisters.’ It was more like a boat drill than the boat drill itself. On one side of the ship the lights had gone out, but on the other the lights remained. As we reached the boat deck and stood by our stations, we heard a very chatty voice on the loudspeaker telling us that the ship was barely damaged and was good for a long float yet. Behind us lined up the kitchen help, cooks and dining-room stewards, who were to be our comrades in the boats, according to the rules of the seat. For all the others it was jump for it.
“On command, and all very quietly, like getting into a boat at a summer resort dock, though it was now almost dark, we got into the boats and were lowered calmly, down the steep sides and unhooked adrift.
“Some of the cooks and kitchen help were pretty poor hands at the oars and in several of our boats we nurses took the oars and helped row around in circles in the gloom, which we followed until we were rescued about two to three hours later.
“It was just dark when we were lowered away, but we could already see the scramble nets flung down over the sides of our ship and people swarming down the clifflike sides of the ship, where they clung until the liferafts were lowered into the sea and then they jumped from the nets and swam to the rafts.
“We knew we had to keep out of the way, but it was fascinating to watch them slowly swarming in the almost dark down that net over the ship’s side and leaping into the sea. From the bridge we could clearly hear the commands to us to row free and head for a destroyer who would pick us up.
“But the destroyer had such a list to it, with its already large load of survivors, that we pushed away from its sides and waited until a larger ship, with engines off, slowly steered into the swarm of us, rafts and boats alike. It was now really dark. We could see, half a mile off, our own ship still fully afloat and on an even keel. Then into our scum of rafts and boats pushed the other ship, very nearly running some of us down with her immense nose.
“Then the great thing began. From her high sides, an awful height to look up at from a rowboat, and in the dark with a slow swell on the sea, they had lowered those rope scramble nets as well as rope ladders. They had also lowered their boats, which were picking men off the rafts and bringing them to that ship’s awful sides.
“As our boat drew near we could see men already going up those rope nets hand over hand. It was awful. But suddenly word was shouted that here were nursing sisters and from high up on the top deck came a tremendous cheer and cries of encouragement. Some of them actually came over the sides to help us, but that was stopped since there were so many others out of the sea on the nets to help. We went up as best we could.
“Out of the whole 99 of us, only two slipped and neither was hurt the least. One fell from a few feet up and one fell from near the top. By a miracle she was not hurt and a Chinese cook from the ship dived after her when he saw her slip and was the man who actually grabbed her in the sea and held her until others could help her to the net again. Nobody envies her double trip up that net. For her family’s sake we won’t tell which of us it was.
“The kitchen crew people in our boats helped us over the worst part, which was the jump from our lifeboats on the heaving sea to grab on to the sagging nets. These nets do not lie close to the sides of the ship; they sag out and swing with the roll of the ship. It’s awful. But we made it and made it in jig time, too. The great majority of us made it without one stop, and as fast as we could move our arms and legs.”
Now there is the composite story, made up from dozens. A few individual stories must be added.
Lieut. Louise Shepherd of Montreal tells of her lifeboat drawing alongside the rescue ship and being unable to get and hold a proper position against the massive sheer walls of the ship’s side. All around them in the night sea were people swimming to the ship and starting up the nets.
All of a sudden, over the side scrambled a young lad, a mere boy, who with loud, cheerful laughter and reassurances took charge, brought the boat steady and helped every one of the sisters to the nets, helping them get a hold and cheering their ascent, while others emerged out of the sea and took their places alongside to help and cheer and jolly the nurses on their climb.
Lieut. Betty Jamieson of Montreal, sister of Bruce Jamieson, head of the Red Cross in London, said that it would have been impossible except for battledress. They could not have done it in skirts. She started alone up the net and found herself with a row of four nursing sisters, all silently and steadily climbing like a party.
Lieut. Frances Skead of Ottawa remembers most the cheers high above, growing closer and closer as she climbed. She still thought she had another 20 feet to go to those cheers when strong arms seized her and hauled her on to the deck below that from which the cheers came.
On board they were taken in hand, along with the others, every one of whom was rescued in one of the fortunate events of this war, and they were given British Red Cross ditty bags, with comb, soap, towel and candy, which was all they had to come ashore with.
So that is what can happen to a girl who goes to war. And when I came on to the terrace they all came wandering on to the terrace from the gardens and hillocks with hands full of the little wild cyclamen that blooms in November all round the Mediterranean – girls in battledress with hands full of miniature cyclamen and a story to tell.
Editor’s Notes: Scramble nets are nets made of rope that were lowered from the side of ships to allow for sea rescues.
“Made it in jig time”, means “very quickly”.
Female battledress would have pants, rather than their usual uniforms which would have skirts.